But designing the Pixel, as the phone would be called, would be like creating a phone for Goldilocks.
Google was ready for more.
Since 2010, the tech giant teamed up with companies such as Samsung, LG and Motorola to create phones that would serve as marquee devices for its mobile operating system, Android. Known as Nexus phones, they ran the newest Android version available at the time, in hardware built and branded by these other companies.
But after launching the Nexus 6P with Huawei five years later, Google flipped the script. It decided to make a new phone without any outside partnerships. Another company would still assemble the device (a task that HTC picked up), but Google alone would engineer, design and sell it.
Designing the Pixel, as the phone would be called, however, would be like creating a phone for Goldilocks. It had to have premium hardware without compromising its style. It had to appeal to the masses without turning its back on the loyalists. And it needed to visually differentiate itself without coming off as too gimmicky. In other words, it had to look just right.
All the right curves in all the right places
Since the original Nexus One, the Nexus brand had largely appealed to Android loyalists who wanted a powerful phone they could customize. It was a devoted, but niche audience.
With the Pixel, Google wanted to attract more people than it ever had to the Nexus series, and expand beyond just the "techies." To do that, the phone had to give off the impression that it was more like a friend, and less like a machine.
Brian Rakowski, Google's vice president of product management for software, says most people don't want their phones to look intimidating. "You want your phone to be something that helps you, and that you can trust, and [will help you] get things done."
A bump prevents a phone from laying flat on a surface. But the Pixel’s camera sensor proved to be a problem.
Making the Pixel look less overwhelming began with softening its corners and smoothing its harsh edges. Contoured angles appear more welcoming and are easier on the eyes, while sharper edges are aggressive and can be alienating to some users.
Even the angled curves that outline the phone (known as "chamfered edges," a common carpentry term), couldn’t bend at too strong a degree. After studying how people held and carried their phones, the team settled on a chamfered curve that was comfortable to hold, but still made the Pixel look thinner.
One curve Google’s industrial design team wanted to avoid, however, was around the camera lens. It wasn’t the team’s main priority to create a phone without a camera bump, but it would be an added bonus if they could pull it off.
Besides being unsightly, a bump prevents a phone from laying flat on a surface. But the Pixel’s camera sensor proved to be a problem: It was large, which was good for letting in more light, but it still needed to fit in the Pixel’s thin body.
So, the team wedged the Pixel’s profile. By thickening just the top half and tapering the bottom, they could keep the camera they wanted, avoid the bump, and cram in a bigger battery to boot.
"We wanted that sensor, but we didn’t want to compromise," said Jason Bremner, Google's vice president of product management for mobile phones. "Because it's wedged, we fit a bigger battery in this design," he said. "So, we got kind of a twofer."
Details to obsess over
In 2008, Jared Spool, the founder of the Massachusetts-based firm User Interface Engineering, wrote: "Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible. It’s only when it’s done poorly that we notice it."
For the Pixel’s design team, that meant poring over every detail even if people wouldn’t notice each one consciously. As long as users walked away feeling that the phone was holistically well designed, the thinking goes, the team remained successful. And there were plenty of minute details that they could overlook.
"A lot of time people might not notice those details, but they appreciate it’s a nice device," said Rachael Roberts, an industrial designer on the team.
Called a dichroic effect, it’s similar to the natural multicolored sheen of soap bubbles.
Consider, for example, the Pixel’s textured power button, located on the right edge of the phone. The team explored different groove patterns before deciding on a final one. In general, grooves let you locate the key by feel alone, and help distinguish it from the volume rocker. The team was careful not to choose anything too rough, but they also knew that anything too smooth would be pointless. After going through several iterations that included diagonal lines and triangles laid out in different patterns, Google landed on a diamond, crosshatch pattern.
Designing the glass panel (or rather, what lies beneath it) on the Pixel’s backside wasn’t straightforward either. The panel itself is easy to spot, as it gives the phone a distinctive two-toned look between the glass and the aluminum. It also has a functional benefit of providing the phone’s six antennas with more surface area to receive and send signals.
But beneath the glass on the Pixel's blue and silver versions is a thin film that makes the glass reflect a soft yellow tint. Called a dichroic effect, it’s similar to the natural multicolored sheen of soap bubbles. You’ve likely come across dichroic glass in art, jewelry and architecture.
Adding this yellow reflection was an entirely aesthetic decision. The only reason the team left it off the black version of the Pixel was because it simply didn’t look right. Similarly, the sand-blasted treatment of the black model’s aluminum encasing received a different finish. Unlike the satiny feel on the blue and silver, the black Pixel is grainier, rougher. The reason, again, was purely aesthetic.
"We felt the blue and the silver’s smoother finish suited them. And this black one just looked…cool," said Villarreal.
Letting gut feeling guide decisions is not unusual for the team. Sometimes, that’s the way design goes. You can bring in focus groups, conduct surveys and do hours of research. But at the end of the day, if something feels right, you have to trust your instincts.
Feeling ‘Really Blue’
Most phones are black. Sometimes, phone makers will offer a white or silver version. And once in a while there’s a one-off color, like the gold iPhone 5S or the fiery red model of the Nexus 5. These fun "pop" colors are useful for marketing the phone, and they often sell out quickly, partly due to their novelty but also because fewer of them are made.
The Pixel has a showcase color too, simply known as Really Blue. Like the other colors, Very Silver and Quite Black, the name is intentionally tongue-in-cheek.
It arose after Google’s marketing team pitched the typical assortment of overused color names (ocean blue, slate, graphite). After hearing such unoriginal suggestions, the product team was less than impressed.
"We were like, ‘This is lame,’" said Rakowski. The marketing team tried again, with a more sarcastic and self-aware approach, eventually arriving at the names we now use. With that, everyone was on board. "It definitely felt on-brand," Rakowski said. "We like poking fun at ourselves a little bit."
Agreeing on cheeky names was one thing. Selecting the exact colors of the phones, too, was a collaborative endeavor that required lots of deliberation — especially with regards to Really Blue.
In its quest to find the perfect showcase color, the team brought in focus groups to evaluate different color samples and mock-ups. Dozens of colors were proposed, including an emerald green, a dusty purple, a deep yellow and a delicate baby blue.
After hearing such unoriginal suggestions, the product team was less than impressed.
But it was the dark, brazenly jewel-tone blue that prevailed, and it resonated well across genders and age ranges. More fine tuning was necessary, of course, which involved more focus testing and more mock-ups. But the team’s own taste factored in too.
"To find that color wasn’t easy, we went through a lot of iterations," said Villarreal. "We saw that one, and it was like, ‘Wow, that’s the one.' It had so much energy in it."
Depending on the light, the blue Pixel ranges from a bright royal blue to a rich cobalt. Though it’s generally seen as a safe brand color for Google (for instance, both of the Gs in its logo are a similar shade of blue), it can still be tricky to pull off if it isn’t done right.
Joann Eckstut, a color consultant and coauthor of "The Secret Language of Color" says that blue is unique in its polarity. It can represent both the working class ("blue collar") and the very rich ("blue blooded"). It’s omnipresent in the sky and seas, but is still rare to find in nature. And though it’s largely considered a masculine color today, blue was more of a feminine color up until the 1940s.
In the end, Really Blue walked that thin line. It was just the right amount of funky, yet wasn’t too "out there" to discourage interested buyers.
"It connotes to me rarity, something exclusive," said Eckstut. "It’s for the unique person."
Ready for the big time
When Google finally unveiled the Pixel to a San Francisco audience last October, it didn’t know what to expect from the public. Having tested the phone internally for more than half the year, the team was nervous. What will users think? Did they overlook anything? Was there still room to improve?
“Sometimes when you're that close to a product, the simple things get lost,” said Bremner. “You get so close to the details and you see all the things that you coulda, shoulda, woulda.”
And while there’s no guarantee that the Pixel would please every Goldilock (for instance, there were observations afterward that its design borrowed too heavily from others, like Apple’s iPhone, or the device’s own assembler, HTC —a speculation both Google and HTC deny), Google did everything it could to deliver a phone it’d be proud to call its own.
From fretting over button textures and avoiding cliched product names to making sure a yellow reflection doesn’t clash with certain shades of aluminum, the Pixel was a result of big ambitions coupled with relentless give-and-take.
"It was trial and error," said Bremner. "Building a phone is honestly a product of compromise. It's all on tradeoffs and trying to find that sweet spot."
This story and a whole crop of exciting new pieces will run in the Spring issue of CNET Magazine. Learn more about CNET Magazine.
About the author
Lynn La is a senior associate editor for CNET, focusing on the mobile industry and design. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee and The Global Post.
Read about tech’s impact on the worldwide refugee crisis, discover what conservationists, scientists and tech companies are doing to save the rhino, learn how Tetris conquered the world, and more in the Winter issue of CNET Magazine.
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